The Writing Traveler: The Sweet Sounds of Bourbon Street

Jazz became their own personal prison, a private kind of hell and confinement that cursed and condemned but seldom ever rewarded them.

Only the song was older than the wrinkled little man who played it.

He sat back in the darkened corner of a tiny room in a darkened corner of Bourbon Street, far removed from the madding crowd that crushed through the neon alleyways outside, calling to the past with the haunting tones of a clarinet.

The song was familiar, an anthem of sorts in New Orleans: When the Saints Go Marching In. It was a hymn. It was a dirge. It was a parade. It was jazz.

And the interpretation was his own. It always was.

Raymond Burke had probably played The Saints a million times, maybe more, and that, he said, was since sundown. He never played it the same way twice. His clarinet simply expressed the way he felt – sometimes sad, sometimes happy, sometimes lost in the wayward web of his own thoughts. A woman crying. A heart in pain. A restless road. A night without end.

Caleb Pirtle

He had seen the saints. He had known the saints. He wasn’t for sure he would ever be one, marching or otherwise. He couldn’t die. He shouldn’t die. Who else would send them to the burying ground with sounds as raucous as a heartbeat following along behind their final ride?

From such emotions came forth the distinct and haunting sound called jazz. It evolved from the work camps, the levees, the revival meetings of the Delta poor. It was simple, in older days, broken-hearted blues that took an assortment of lonely notes where they had never been before and might never go again.

Most who really played jazz were born to play jazz. It became their own personal prison, a private kind of hell and confinement that cursed and condemned but seldom ever rewarded them. Fate never let them escape.

Take the lonesome clarinetist Raymond Burke. He gently placed his head back against the wall, cradling his clarinet across his chest and said, “Man, New Orleans is a jazz town. Always was. Still is. When I was growing up, everybody played something. I used to play homemade instruments like a tin flute or a bobbin’ with paper that sounded a lot like a kazoo.”

He was nineteen when he got his first professional job.

A band needed a clarinetist. The band was on the street, in the clubs, back in the alleys, trying to hire a clarinetist.

Raymond Burke walked up out of the darkness and said without any hesitation, “I’m a clarinetist.”

“You pretty good?”

“I’m real good.”

“You got yourself a job.”

Raymond Burke smiled. He did not own a clarinet.  He had heard them, and he said, “I loved the sweet music they put out. But I had never played one.”

Raymond Burke went down into a Louisiana swamp and cut a stick of bamboo, roughly the length of a clarinet. He fixed it with a reed mouthpiece, bought with the advance from his first paycheck, placed graphite on his fingertips, and held the bamboo so it was comfortable in his hands.

Everywhere the graphite left black marks, he drilled a hole. He walked on stage and played that night. He played for a lot of nights.

His bamboo clarinet was in perfect tune.

The Man Who Talks to Strangers is a memoir of those days when I was travel editor of Southern Living Magazine. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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